Though much prized in 1966 when it first appeared, Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac has become one of the director’s least revived — at least among the films most would consider essential Polanski. I’m not entirely sure why. This existential black comedy certainly isn’t suffering from a lack of Polanski-ness. It’s every inch a Polanski movie — the kind of thing you absolutely cannot imagine anyone else making. (It’s also the kind of thing that used to prompt an old friend of mine to say of the director, “This man is no mere filmmaker, this man is sick.” I believe my friend meant that positively, but I don’t guess it really matters.) It’s tempting to think that this story of a really off-beat home invasion suffers from having no likable characters, but isn’t that something you can say about most Polanski films? I suspect it has more to do with the impenetrable story and its rather unhurried approach.
The basic idea is that George (Donald Pleasence) spends his days largely shut off from the world in a seaside castle — that for part of the day literally is shut off from the world by the tide — with his trophy wife (though I don’t think the term existed then) Teresa (Françoise Dorléac), who spends her spare time in an affair with a strapping young man (Iain Quarrier). This already simmering household reaches the breaking point with the arrival of two gangsters — Richard (Lionel Stander) and Albie (Jack MacGowran) — who are on the run from the cops and living in the hope that an enigmatic big shot named Kattelbach will arrive and save them. Since Albie is slowly dying from a gunshot wound, Richard is clearly the person in charge — and it’s he who takes the couple hostage. But the hostage situation turns into a series of games of shifting loyalties until it’s no longer quite clear who is holding whom hostage. How it plays out is at once bitterly funny and deeply disturbing.
Classic World Cinema by Courtyard Gallery will present Cul-De-Sac Friday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. at Phil Mechanic Studios, 109 Roberts St., River Arts District, upstairs in the Railroad Library). Info: 273-3332, www.ashevillecourtyard.com